Archive for the ‘ Killer Ratings ’ Category

Killer Ratings signing at LA Times Festival of Books

Thanks to everyone who dropped by the Sisters in Crime booth on Saturday–it was lovely meeting you all. And a special thank you to those who bought “Killer Ratings.” I hope you enjoy it!Festival of Books signing

The Importance of Mentors

When I was six, in a race to finish homework in order to watch Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, I did a sloppy job of coloring and ended up with a C.  When Dad saw the grade, he asked me why my work was so sloppy.  When I told him, he gave me advice I’ve never forgotten: If you want to succeed in whatever you do, do it well.  I took those words to heart, not realizing at that moment that Dad had become my first mentor.

Mentors are important to our work as writers because they not only point out where we’ve gone off course but never fail to support us.  It’s that combination of criticism and encouragement that every writer needs to not only do his or her best but to keep writing, even when the odds seem against us.

As you begin your journey as a writer, keep an eye out for your mentor.  It could be a supportive high school teacher, or college professor, who gives you helpful criticism while cheering you on.  Perhaps it’s a successful friend who is willing to give you the benefit of his or her experience.  Or even a parent, who, despite wanting something else for you (my dad wanted me to be a lawyer) will still do his or her best to make sure you do yours.

On each show I’ve written for, I’ve always taken away something helpful about writing from my boss, be it Len Katzman on “Dallas” (who taught me how to embrace every character and find something to love even in the most dastardly like JR Ewing), Ann Marcus on “Knots Landing” (who knows more about how to structure a show in her pinkie than most of us do after decades in the business) or Gary Tomlin on “Sunset Beach” (who insisted that we protect our hero, even if he’s in the midst of losing the girl).

In Killer Ratings, I thanked several teachers who, in some way, contributed to my becoming a professional writer.  They were all my mentors and I will always be grateful to them.  Now it’s time for you to start looking for yours.

You hate me, you really hate me

“I’m sure you’re a good writer on other shows, Lisa, but just not on this one,” were the painful words the headwriter of the daytime soap I had been writing for told me right before she fired me.  Ouch!

In the world of TV writing, getting fired is inevitable.  Bryce Zabel, a well-respected television writer and producer, once told my UCLA screenwriting class that if you weren’t fired at least once, you weren’t a professional writer.

Andy Zack, my literary agent, sent Killer Ratings to every publisher in NY only to have the novel rejected by every publisher in NY.  It wasn’t until the emergence of ebooks that Killer Ratings managed to find a home with Ignition Books, an e-publisher.

So, how do you handle rejection in a way that doesn’t cause you to spend years feeling bad about yourself and giving up writing forever? To face the disappoint when your book or your script is not met with overwhelmingly love followed by a paycheck?

First, take the time to feel bad.  But don’t take too much time.  Whenever I get a call from either the headwriter or my TV agent, telling me my contract was not being picked up for renewal, I call my mom and cry on her shoulder.  Then I call a couple of good friends and cry on their shoulders.  But I set a limit to my mourning.  Three days to a week of feeling sorry for myself but that’s all.  Otherwise, I’ll become obsessed with the bad feelings the firing (or rejection letters) engender and not get back to work at all.

And by “work” I mean my own writing projects, those I write during the times I’m unemployed.  I’ve written a first draft of an epic-romance novel, two TV pilots (one of which was bought by Russia) and even Killer Ratings, which, as you know, had its own happy ending.

Writing my own projects gives me control of my life.  No one can criticize what I’m writing except myself.  (But be careful of self-censorship–which will be another post in the immediate future!)  I may be unemployed but yet I’m not: I get up every morning, write my five pages and feel as if I’m accomplishing something.

And when I get a call from my agent that another show is thinking of hiring me and do I have something new to show them,  I usually have that fresh spec pilot I wrote while waiting for the phone to ring.

Rejection is tough but as long as you realize writing is subjective and you keep writing you won’t stay “rejected” for long.

Know your audience

After Jeff Lerner from Sony hired me to consult on the Russian soap “Poor Anastasia,” he and I had a conference call with the Russian producers and head writers of the project.  I had been given some of the translated material to get an idea of what the story was about and clearly Jeff and I considered it a soap opera.  In looking for an American writer for the project, Jeff called my agent, Jim Sarnoff, because Jim represented soap writers exclusively.  Jeff knew he needed a writer experienced in American daytime soaps to give knowledgeable help to the Russian writers.  When I read the material, essentially a synopsis of the story, I knew it was a soap: the Russians planned to air it five days a week (in primetime, however, not during the day), the central story was romantic, featuring twentysomething characters as well as strong families in conflict with one another.

However, during the conference call with my Russian colleagues (who I had yet to meet), I referred to the show as a miniseries.  Alexander Akopov, the executive producer of “Poor Anastasia,” leapt at on my description, agreeing that, yes, that’s exactly how they saw the project, as a miniseries.

Well, you can have a miniseries that’s still soapy and I didn’t pay as much attention to his enthusiastic endorsement of the show’s description until mid-way into the writing of the show.

In other post I’ll write about Jeff’s and my first visit to Moscow when it became clear the two male headwriters didn’t understand the soap genre and Alexander fired them and made me the headwriter.  (Although Jeff and I insisted he keep one of the writers, Yuri Belenki, who remains a dear friend.)  As the headwriter, I was responsible for the vision of the show, as well as story and character development.  The writers I hired, as I’ve written in another post, argued with me constantly about how I was telling the story, claiming it wasn’t Russian.  When I would exclaim, “the babushka in Minsk will love this,” they’d argue back, “The babushka in Minsk will never watch it!”  (Turns out she did; in fact half the country watched “Poor Anastasia.”)

What I came to realize is that my writers didn’t understand who their audience was.  They were all university-educated, smart, funny and verbal but they were all a bit embarrassed by the show.  It was too romantic.  Too soapy.  It was not a show they would watch.

Here’s a deep, dark secret: Given a choice, I wouldn’t watch soaps either.  Aside from “Dark Shadows,” which I loved as a kid, I was never a soap fan.  I wanted to write for the police procedurals like “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.”  But somehow I found myself writing for soaps and being told to stick with the genre because I was good at it.  And while I may not have been the audience I was writing for, I understood I better know who that audience was and write for them!

Which is what I told my Russian writers.  I said we were writing this for every woman in Russia who was coming home from her stressful, low-paying job, who had to take care of her husband/parents/children.  That she needed to turn on the TV and watch a show in which she could forget about her problems, lose herself in the romance of Korf and Repnin competing for Anna’s love, while Anna hides the terrible secret that she’s a serf.  “You may not watch this,” I told them, “but there are millions of women out there who will.  If we understand exactly what they want to see.”

Whatever you write for, whether you like the genre or not personally, you have to know your audience and write for them.  Even if you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, you need to ask yourself, “Who do I want to read/watch this?”  You certainly shouldn’t write a sweet, tender love story if you’re hoping for an audience of teenage boys.    When I wrote “Killer Ratings,” I aimed for an audience who enjoyed light mystery but also wanted to know about what goes on behind the scenes of a primetime TV drama.  

Throughout, Alexander Akopov supported my point of view and encouraged me to never give in to my writers when they wanted to take conflict or un-Russian-like story twists out of the plot.  But, secretly, Alexander was still embarrassed by the soapy elements. The story Alexander wanted to tell?  Monetary reform!

It seems that in 1842 St. Petersburg, the finance minister Kankrin (Jeff thought his name sounded like a hemorrhoid medication)  urged the Tsar to revalue the ruble.  Nikolai I did and–yea!–the ruble was revalued.  Alexander felt this was a very important moment in Russian history that should be dramatized, and, suspecting I might disagree (after all, I took out all scenes in which the tsarevich provided his fiancee, Marie of Saxe-Coburg, skin cream for her psoriasis that my writers felt was necessary because “she really did have skin problems”) wrote and shot the scenes behind my back, only revealing them to Jeff and me when we were back in Los Angeles for a short break and unable to physically stop him.

Naturally, Jeff and I hit the roof but it was a done deal.  Alexander was the boss, he’s the one who hired Sony, and therefore me, to come to Russia and work on the show.  When the monetary reform story line aired, I asked a Russian-speaking acquaintance who lived in L.A. to check the Internet and see what the fans were saying.  She checked for a week and our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Masha (not her real name): Are you sure you gave me the right dates the story was airing?

Me: Yeah, why?

Masha: Because I don’t see anything about monetary reform.  No discussion at all.

Me: Are you sure?  What are they talking about?

Masha:  It seems Repnin and Korf had a duel over Anna.  That’s all they’re talking about.  They’re really angry that Anna ended up with Repnin, they want her with Korf.

See?  My audience didn’t care about monetary reform.  They were engaged in the romance, in the duel for Anna’s heart.  I also learned something hugely important: that the audience wanted Anna to end up with Korf (the bad boy) as opposed to Repnin (the good guy).  Isn’t that always the case?  My Russian writers would never tell me something as important as that (although some did alert me that monetary reform story was a bust).  But finding out about it, I used the second half of the series to slowly bring Korf and Anna together and found another love interest for poor Repnin.  Of course Korf and Anna didn’t really come together until the last episode of the show.  I wanted the audience to keep watching in the hopes Korf and Anna would be together at the end.

The funny thing is, while I wrote the show for those poor, stressed-out women, their young daughters started watching it with them, and even their husbands, and, yes, even Putin, who admitted to a journalist in some embarrassment that he watched the show two or three nights a week!

The Russians are so different from us in so many respects but there’s one thing we all have in common: We love a good story well told.

Money Money Money

As a junior in high school, I had my mandatory meeting with Mr. Workman, my guidance counselor, to have what was essentially the “what do I want to be when I grow up” conversation so he could direct me to an appropriate college.

When I told Mr. Workman that I wanted to be a TV writer, he made a valiant effort to choke back his surprise (in the 1970s, writing for television was not the popular career choice it is today), and said if I succeeded I’d make a lot of money but it was a very difficult profession to get into.

I had no idea you could make a lot of money writing for television. I simply wanted to write for TV no matter what it paid. Mr. Workman then recommended a small, liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation (Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA where I spent four tumultuous years learning to grow up as well as write for TV in non-traditional ways).

When I eventually started to write as a professional TV writer I discovered Mr. Workman was right on both counts: it was hard to break in but once I did I could make a lot of money.

Let’s talk about the money.  If you’re hired to write an episode of a network primetime hour long drama today, you will make $13,948 for writing the story (outline). If the writer-producers then send you on to script (teleplay) you make an additional $22,997.

If you’re on staff, you will most likely get paid for story and teleplay without needing to get the okay to go to script. In that case you make a lump sum of $34,956 for each script you write. And staff writers tend to write anywhere from three to seven scripts per season. Depending on the number of guaranteed working weeks in your contract, you can make an additional $3,325-$4,244 per week. So, as a writer on a network primetime hour long series, you will easily make over $100,000 a year.

Employment on non-network shows is lower but still more than what most people in this country earn in a year. For a complete list of minimum salaries writers make in any area of Guild-covered writing, check the Writers Guild web site (www.wga.org) and click on Schedule of Minimums.

When you’re a staff writer on a show, you think you’ll be making this money forever. And some writers will. They’ll rise through the ranks, become showrunners, develop a reputation of being a successful writer-producers and spend the majority of  their years working. But the sad truth is most writers don’t have a multi-decade career or make the big bucks forever. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that and spend the money as if they’ll be making those six figure salaries forever.

If you’re one of the fortunate few who has gotten on staff and started receiving those amazing paychecks, save your money. I’m not saying don’t buy that Beamer you’ve had your eye on, or the two-story Colonial dream house south of Ventura Blvd.  But don’t spend every dollar of your paycheck. Set some aside for that day when the jobs dry up and your agent stops calling you. Give yourself a cushion so that when you find yourself unemployed (temporarily, I hope) you don’t have sell your house or become a barista at Starbucks. Be financially comfortable enough so you can write a new project that will get you noticed again.

My mother jokes that I always saved the first dollar I made from babysitting. She’s not wrong. During my bouts of unemployment, I wrote “Killer Ratings,” various spec pilots, one of which was bought by the Russians and actually produced. A couple of specs I wrote (a TV movie, a “Sex and the City” spec as well as that dramedy pilot the Russians bought) led to writing work on “Dallas” (the original), “Sunset Beach,” and “Hollywood Heights.”

I was able to to wrote those specs because I had saved my money and didn’t need to look for a non-writing job to pay the bills.  I hope you’ll do the same.

“I would like to thank the Academy…” Part Two

You have an idea and you’ve started writing. You’ve followed my advice and not talked about your story with friends or family. But at some point you will need feedback on what you’ve written, to find out if you’re on the right track, to get inspired to move forward with fresh ideas or to rewrite and make your work better. Who do you show your work to?

Your instinct may be to show your work–finally!– to your friends and family, but if they love you (as they should) you might hear only words of praise, which is lovely and ego-boosting after slaving away for weeks and months on creating your “baby,” but not particularly helpful.

Or, if they have an ax to grind, they might instead be unusually harsh. My dad, after reading my “Hill Street Blues” spec said to me, “It’s like a regular ‘Hill Street Blues’ episode, but it’s nothing special.” Thanks, Dad. That was 30 years of therapy.

(On the other hand, it was Dad who encouraged me to be the focused, disciplined writer I am today, and who also helped me find my voice when I was in college and struggling to be a writer. But more on that in another post.)

My recommendation is you take a writing class. As someone who has taken classes herself as well as taught classes (twelve years at UCLA Writers’ Extension and now starting my second semester at USC School of Cinematic Arts), I find that a classroom situation helps you get the best feedback from students and teacher. A class also provides discipline and deadlines, both necessary when writing on spec.

Now, most of us enroll in class thinking Steven Spielberg will pop out behind the door to hand us our writing Oscar while at the same time refunding our tuition as he tells us the class is not necessary for us, he wants to hire us immediately. Unfortunately, he disappears in a puff of smoke the second after you have read the first several pages of your work, and your teacher and fellow students start heaping your baby with criticism. I took a novel writing class at UCLA many years ago (to get feedback on “Killer Ratings”) and one student was so affronted by our feedback that she argued about everything and eventually stopped coming to class. As my teacher eventually told me, “That student just wanted to hear how great her writing was.”

It’s important that you attend class with an open mind, understanding that your work needs to be improved and rewritten. For instance, in that same class, on the advice of the teacher and students, I changed the name of the book from “Forty Share” to “A Killing in the Ratings” (a writer friend later recommended I shorten it to “Killer Ratings”) and I introduced the plot point of Rebecca, Susan Kaplan’s boss, receiving death threats in order to introduce tension to the story early on, since Rebecca’s death doesn’t occur until several chapters later.

Now, not every student’s critique is going to be helpful. Like you, these students have a learning curve (which is why they, too, are taking the class). While you shouldn’t reject everything your classmates have to say about your writing, you don’t necessarily have to accept everything they’re saying either. (And, yes, sometimes even your teacher isn’t 100% correct although I always give a teacher’s critique more weight–and I am saying that because I’m a teacher!)

When I was writing my first soap opera in Russia (“Bednaya Nastya” aka “Poor Anastasia”) my Sony executive, Jeff Lerner, would give me notes, and my reaction was always to say no, or to argue with him. He told me to change my default “no” to “That’s interesting, I’ll think about it,” and to not tackle any changes based on his notes until I had a day to digest them. I urge you to do the same. There were plenty of times when Jeff would give me a note and I’d think, “No way am I going to do that!” Or, I’d hang up the phone, go back to my hotel room, his notes whirling around in my head and be depressed, not knowing how to give him (really, the story) what he was asking for.

But, by waiting a day, by letting the notes sink in, I’d more often than not feel energized by them and would had figured out how to make the changes.  (One night, Jeff and I fought over a change he wanted me to make that I declared was impossible!  We hung up, tense with one another, but when I went to bed shortly afterward, I actually dreamed the solution [I told you I have vivid dreams], e-mailed it to Jeff the next morning and he loved it.)

So, if you take a class, enter it with an open mind, a desire to improve your work and to collaborate. You’ll find that the feedback you receive is ultimately more rewarding than if friends and family did nothing but strew flowers in your path.

A shocking discovery

Susan meets someone at this Starbucks but it’s at the neighboring doughnut shop where she learns something that blows her mind.